Tag Archives: Discworld

Fantasy Fiction – A Closed Book?

I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.

giphy book baby
Mmm-mmm, tasty words. (image: giphy.com)

But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.

And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:

  • Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
  • Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
  • Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
  • Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
  • Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
  • Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.

Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.

Cthulhu_by_disse86-d9tq84i
I mean. (image: vsbattles.wikia.com)

But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.

I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.

But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.

When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?

giphy snigger
Heh heh heh. Boobs. (image: giphy.com)

As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.

The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:

…it’s fantasy.

Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.

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In reality they would just crawl about like big spiders. (image: bt.com)

And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.

It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.

All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.

But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.

bYggEeT
Apart from this little hell-angel. (image: imgur.com)

Strong Female Characters: Susan Sto Helit

For those of you that don’t know, Susan Sto Helit is one of the many leading ladies of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Susan is the granddaughter of Death (but she doesn’t like to talk about that much) and appears in three books, all of which revolve around her trying to save the world from various supernatural nasties. Widely hailed as one of Pratchett’s most ground-breaking female characters, Susan has become the fictional equivalent of a national treasure for Discworld fans everywhere.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Most of Susan’s stories aren’t set in motion by her own actions. What usually happens is that another character does something incredibly stupid, and Susan is drafted in to clean up the mess. However, from that point onwards Susan is very much in control. When she briefly takes over the role of Death in Soul Music, she tries to bend the laws of reality and only take the souls of people who, in her eyes, ‘deserve it’ – this doesn’t end well, but later she manages to save the day anyway. In Hogfather, she’s the one who works out the villain’s plan and puts a stop to it. In Thief of Time, she’s the one who works out how to kill the Auditors – formless, timeless creatures without physical bodies who are temporarily forced to take a physical form.

auditor_of_reality
And they’re creepy as hell. (image: discworld.wikia.com)

What’s more, it’s made pretty clear that outside the main narrative of these three stories, Susan has gone to quite some lengths to have a life of her own. As the granddaughter of Death, she’s naturally able to see all the supernatural creatures that most humans automatically ignore. Susan responds to this by trying to make herself into the most aggressively normal person it’s possible for her to be, deliberately shunning her supernatural powers in an attempt to stop getting dragged into reality-bending adventures. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Susan’s hobbies are made pretty clear from her first appearance – she enjoys logical pursuits, sports which involve swinging scythe-like objects around and spending time with children. Her beliefs are clear too: she firmly believes that children should be allowed to face up to all the things adults try to hide from them, that children should be challenged at every opportunity, and that things like philosophy are inherently pointless attempts to oversimplify a complicated world. Her goals are pretty consistent too. They vary from book to book (depending on what kind of monster she’s fighting this week) but generally revolve around her desire to stay human and to protect humanity as a larger whole.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Susan is a very consistent character. She’s logical, intelligent, determined, sensible and practical to the point of chilliness, mainly as a result of her no-nonsense upbringing.

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She quite literally has NO sense of humour. (image: tumblr.com)

Her skills are much more interesting. Aside from the fact that she regularly beats up monsters with an iron poker, as the granddaughter of Death she’s inherited a few of her old granddad’s tricks. She can bend space and time to her will – frequently causing her to forget about things like doorknobs and walk right through walls, and take children on field trips to ancient battlefields. She can see the supernatural inhabitants of the Disc where normal humans cannot, and has developed a kind of hyperawareness of every single thing in the universe. She has a perfect memory – and because Death is outside time in the Discworld novels, sometimes this actually lets her remember the future as well as the past.

Her powers all fluctuate depending on what kind of situation she’s in. If she has to step into the role of Death (as she’s had to do a few times now) her abilities become far more powerful; equally, if she has to visit a realm where there is no concept of Death whatsoever, she becomes a completely normal human. Her lack of certain skills is also made very clear – she has absolutely no understanding of any kind of creative pursuit and regularly struggles with any kind of emotional skills. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A sensible, practical young woman with supernatural abilities has to become Death, start time, and prevent the assassination of a figment of the imagination.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Susan doesn’t really have much of a love life. She finds it incredibly difficult to even recognise her own feelings, let alone act on them, so her romantic escapades tend to be more along the lines of extremely subtle crushes rather than full-blown relationships.

While she does eventually end up having some kind of subtle relationship, it doesn’t influence her decisions much. What really motivates her is her desire to save the world, hold onto her humanity and stop everyone else from acting like such silly idiots.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Susan develops over the course of her appearances in Discworld. She slowly comes to terms with her supernatural abilities and starts using her powers to make her day-to-day life easier, instead of outright rejecting them. She becomes marginally more in touch with her feelings, and starts making more of an effort to develop relationships with people, although she isn’t always good at this. She also starts developing a better relationship with her grandfather, which is always going to be a little bit awkward seeing as he’s, you know, Death.

death
“So what did you do today, Grandpa?” (image: photobucket.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Susan has plenty of weaknesses. She has real trouble expressing or even acknowledging her own emotions, which puts a serious damper on her personal relationships. She has absolutely no time for anything that she considers silly or frivolous, to the point where she actually seems disdainful. But her biggest flaw, much like Granny Weatherwax, is that she’s afraid of her own powers.

Susan is constantly reining herself in, trying to make sure that she stays as human as possible. She has to remind herself to use the door rather than walking straight through walls. She’s very aware of the fact that she’s not really a part of the human race and certainly isn’t subject to the same restrictions – and she’s terrified that one day she’ll lean into that and lose her humanity altogether. She knows that she’s on the outside of the human race, looking in – and she’s scared that one day she’ll think she’s above the human race, looking down. As a result Susan is incredibly uptight, alert and hyper-aware, always second-guessing herself, and never really seems to be at ease with herself and what she can do.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Susan is a real influence on the plot. Everything she does has some kind of impact, whether that’s beating up monsters with an iron poker or stopping assassins from killing the Hogfather – the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Susan is very refreshing where gender stereotypes are concerned. She’s a young woman in all her appearances and directly related to a supernatural entity – but rather than falling into the standard ‘Gothic young woman’ category she’s almost the exact opposite. She’s relentlessly practical, logical to the point of chilliness and deals with the supernatural in a calm, methodical and incredibly sensible way, and that’s not even touching on her struggles dealing with her own emotions. These are far from the typical stereotypes we see in stories about young women and the supernatural.

What’s more, she takes on a whole new set of stereotypes when it comes to her profession. Susan is a teacher and governess, who isn’t sickly sweet, always challenges the students in her care and, above all, doesn’t want children of her own. Think about all the portrayals of the angelic, beautiful young schoolteacher surrounded by adoring children, and you’ll realise just how unusual this is.

julie-andrews-gif-julie-andrews-practically-perfect-in-every-way-mp
That’s not a good thing. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Susan has quite a few relationships with other female characters. As a young girl she’s friends with a dwarf and a troll who are both at her girls’ school, and the three of them band together when they find common ground in their mutual difference from the rest of the students. She’s slightly exasperated by the soppy young Violet Bottler, tooth-fairy-in-training, but helps her out anyway. But most interesting of all is her relationship with Myria LeJean, later re-named Unity.

Unity was one of the Auditors – a formless being existing outside of time and space who kept the universe running on a day-to-day basis. Like all Auditors, she had a natural hatred of humanity, as the messiness of human life made it impossible for them to predict what was going to happen and ruined all their paperwork. However, when Unity had to adopt a human form as part of her work for the Auditors, the individuality and sensory overload of the human experience turned her against the Auditors. Susan befriends her, in an awkward and stilted way, and the two bond over being apart from humanity as opposed to a part of it. Unity makes Susan question where humanity begins and ends as the two butt heads and work together, and forces her to confront her feelings. By the time Unity kills herself – having decided that she cannot reconcile being human with her identity as an Auditor – Susan doesn’t just pity her, but almost feels sorry for the rest of the Auditors too.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Terry Pratchett! Susan is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, goals, beliefs and hobbies. She’s in control of her own life, isn’t completely defined by gender stereotypes and does have a story that revolves around who she decides to date. Top marks all round!

Next week, I’ll be looking at another of the classics: Bleak House. Esther Summerson, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters: Tiffany Aching

For those of you that don’t know, Tiffany Aching is another one of the main characters in Sir Terry Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Aimed at slightly younger readers (although I still elbowed my way through a train station to get a copy of The Shepherd’s Crown), Tiffany’s novels chart her journey to becoming a very powerful witch. She’s pitted against some incredibly vicious elves, an amorphous mass of minds that wants to possess people, the Lord of Winter and what is essentially an undead zombie witch-hunter – all while negotiating her way through puberty. Much like the rest of the Discworld books, Tiffany Aching’s five novels have sold incredibly well and received high praise from the critics, particularly for her very original portrayal. The last book in the series – released six months after Sir Terry Pratchett’s death – concludes her story.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: This post will contain serious spoilers for the last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown and copious amounts of my feelings. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

For most of the five books she appears in, Tiffany is a young girl: she starts the series at nine years old and spends most of the books as a child or a teenage girl. As I’ve already discussed, you might think that because she’s a child character this would seriously undercut her agency. However, this is definitely not the case.

Tiffany has a lot more freedom than most other child characters in fiction. She grows up on a farm in a very rural part of the Disc, and it’s established from the very beginning of the series that she’s always been expected to help run that farm. Whereas other child characters are often subjected to restrictions about where they can go and what they can do, Tiffany has very little of these, and this is mainly a result of her poor, rural upbringing.

This lack of restrictions is also apparent in her witchcraft training. Even though she spends a substantial amount of her fictional appearances training to be a witch – and hence, being told what to do by another, more senior witch – she still has plenty of opportunities to think and act for herself. Independent behaviour is actively encouraged by other witches – very few of them want an apprentice that can’t get on with things on her own – even though this gets her into trouble more than once. As the novels progress she becomes more independent and actively uses her powers to protect the people she cares about, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Tiffany is always portrayed as a very busy character – whether she’s helping her family on their farm or trying to be a village witch for two places at once. As such, we don’t see a whole lot of her hobbies – but we do know that she’s very proud of her cheese-making abilities.

OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)
OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)

Her goals are another matter. Tiffany’s goals vary from book to book, and they usually relate to whatever supernatural nasty she is squaring off with. However, she has a few long-term goals that remain constant: to become a good witch and to use her powers to protect her family, her home and pretty much everyone she comes across. Her beliefs tie into this – she believes very strongly in standing up for people, giving people what they need rather than what they want, and protecting the innocent – or in the case of the Nac Mac Feegles, the definitely-guilty-of-something.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Tiffany is consistently shown to be brave, clever, sensible, kind, a little on the stern side and with a strong sense of duty. Already magically powerful even before she begins her training, as the series progresses her powers increase – however, this is something we see her working at continually, and although she may have an easier time of it than many other trainee witches she still has to work hard to perfect her skills.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A brave, intelligent and blisteringly sensible young witch determined to protect her family, her home, her neighbours, her friends, her teachers…and anyone else she’s missed off that list.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Tiffany’s love life isn’t really a feature of the books. She has a fledgling relationship with the local Baron’s son, Roland, and a more serious one with a young doctor, Preston, and also manages to catch the eye of the Lord of Winter. But as a general rule, these aren’t the central focus of the Discworld novels – with the exception of Wintersmith (whose crush on her is definitively one-sided), these relationships are never really the central focus of the Discworld novels.

Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)
Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)

What really drives Tiffany through the plot are her goals, which I listed above. She wants to help and protect people, to become a great witch and to defeat whichever ungodly entity she’s up against this week. Interestingly, she says outright in The Shepherd’s Crown that although she loves Preston, she would never give up her work for him – she knows that she would be abandoning a village worth of people in doing so, and that’s a possibility she simply can’t entertain.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Tiffany’s story effectively spans about a decade of her life, so if she didn’t develop that’d be cause for real concern. Over the course of the books she grows up – she comes to terms with the fact that witchcraft is essentially an endless, thankless job, starts regarding her relationships with considerably more maturity, stops acting rashly, learns to take orders from some people (and to ignore others) and comes into her own in terms of her magical abilities. That’s a range of development on a range of different fronts, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Many of Tiffany’s weaknesses stem from the way she regards herself. She’s much cleverer than the majority of the people she meets, and she knows it – so she can be quite arrogant and dismissive. She has a tendency to blunder into things because she thinks she knows best, like many other Discworld witches, and this gets her into trouble more than once. When she’s younger, she also has a tendency to act rashly (particularly when confronted with the heady call of teenage rebellion) and when she’s older, she really overstretches herself in an effort to prove that she’s just as good, if not better, than the more senior witches. These are all very realistic flaws for someone in her position and they actively hold her back, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

In every book, Tiffany’s actions and decisions drive the plot forward. Whether she’s flirting with the personification of Winter and accidentally Elsa-ing her hometown, or whether she’s rescuing her baby brother from some incredibly bloodthirsty elves –

GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU'RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)
GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU’RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)

– she is a constant force on the plot. What’s interesting is that even though she comes up against a lot of supernatural nasties, thereby making her vulnerable to my Universal Monster Law, she’s often the one who ends up drawing the creature to her in the first place. Whether she’s accidentally summoned something or provoked it into chasing her, this means that she still has a distinct influence on the plot, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Much like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching tramples over gender stereotypes in her incredibly sensible boots.

In some ways she can been seen as a very traditionally feminine character: she goes out of her way to help people, she does everything she’s asked and more without complaining, and she’s also a skilled healer and a witch – both professions that were traditionally associated with women for centuries. However, she’s also brave, intelligent, unflinchingly practical and positively laden with common sense – not traits that are commonly associated with young women and girls. She’s also a very young girl who comes into a position of serious responsibility, who has serious power at her disposal. She handles this well, taking everything she encounters in her stride whether it’s delivering a baby or destroying a demon in a field of fire.

What’s notable about all of this is that she does it all without compromising her femininity. In order for her to hold her position of power, she doesn’t have to reject some of the more ‘girly’ parts of her personality. She’s still allowed to get a little silly over her crushes, we still see her being attracted to other characters, and we still see her take pride in her appearance every now and then. She doesn’t have to reject these traits in order to prove that she’s strong – she knows she’s strong no matter how she looks or acts. Tiffany might occasionally still get silly little crushes on the boys she likes, but that doesn’t stop her from grinding her enemies into paste.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tiffany has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She initially despises the Queen of the Elves as a child; when she meets her again as an adult – when the Queen has been removed from her position of power and forced into the human world – she comes to pity her and eventually regards her as a kind of friend. She’s close with her mother and sisters, and makes a number of friends during her witchcraft training, some of which she becomes very close with. She also has a number of witchcraft instructors – including Nanny Ogg, who she is faintly embarrassed by, Miss Treason, who she is slightly creeped out by, and Miss Tick, who started Tiffany on the path to witchcraft. However, her most important relationship by far is with Granny Weatherwax.

Granny Weatherwax initially oversees Tiffany’s training – although she doesn’t actually do a lot of the training part herself. She keeps an eye on Tiffany from afar and at first, the two are a little hostile towards one another. Gradually, as Tiffany grows up, demonstrates an aptitude for witchcraft and a deeply sensible attitude, they become friends. Tiffany ends up giving Granny a kitten she comes to treasure – although of course, she doesn’t let the kitten know that, only referring to it as ‘You’. Granny comes to trust in Tiffany’s abilities so much that when she dies in The Shepherd’s Crown

I've just got something in my eye... (image: giphy.com)
I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

– she ends up leaving everything to Tiffany, including her cottage and her position as not-the-head-witch. Tiffany is devastated by this loss, and spends the rest of this novel trying to fill Granny’s shoes and eventually coming to terms with her legacy. Tiffany’s relationships with other female characters are rich and varied, depending entirely on the personality of the character she’s interacting with, so she passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching has completely aced my test. She’s a well-developed character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, her love life doesn’t completely eclipse her other decisions and goals, she’s firmly in control of her own destiny and she has a real impact on the plot. What’s more, she does it all while trampling over gender stereotypes in incredibly sensible shoes and while forming meaningful relationships with a range of other female characters.

Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)
Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)

This is a real testament to Sir Terry Pratchett’s writing. As a genre, fantasy isn’t often kind to its female characters. A typical fantasy novel will not give its female characters anywhere near the amount of depth that Pratchett bestows upon the likes of Tiffany Aching and Granny Weatherwax. Often, women are relegated to the sidelines of the plot – acting as fair princesses needing to be rescued, sultry temptresses ready to seduce the hero, or quiet healers, ready to see the men off to war. Modern fantasy doesn’t rely on these tropes anywhere near as much – even though most fantasy novels tend to be aimed at a more male audience – but they’re still very much present in the staples of fantasy canon. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, only has three named female characters that play a significant role in the plot. They certainly have their moments, but these are only ever moments. Entire chapters can go past without Tolkien even mentioning a female character, let alone giving her a line; for most of his work there simply isn’t a consistent female presence.

This is not the case with Discworld. All Pratchett’s novels have a range of different female characters who display unique personalities. The force of their combined personalities radiates off the page like heat, blistering the ink it leaves behind. Pratchett’s female characters are flawed, they’re funny, they’re distinct, they’re memorable, they’re engaging. What’s more, the stories they participate in are never lessened simply because of their gender. They decide the fates of nations, they take the forces of nature in their stride, they fend off twisted abominations bent on crushing humanity beneath its scaly claws. Whereas many other female characters in fiction are confined to a domestic scene, Pratchett’s heroines deal with conflicts on a cross-dimensional scale.

The upshot of all this is that when I first discovered Pratchett’s work as a spotty teenager, I found something welcoming. I’d always been interested in fantasy, but as I came into my teens I came to realise that the classics of the genre weren’t really aimed at girls like me. I began to find classic fantasy books quite alienating, because the only characters given interesting character development were men, whereas the women tended to glide through the story like mannequins on wheels. Pratchett’s novels were decidedly different because I could see myself in his characters – not just because they were female, but because they were such well-rounded characters that they almost seemed like real people. It was also one of the first fantasy series I had read that acknowledged that women could play more than one role in the story. Pratchett’s heroines can go from clipping an old man’s toenails to mooning over a boy to defeating supernatural entities all in the space of a chapter. To this day, this isn’t something you often see in fantasy fiction – and it’s also something that I always try and include in my own writing.

I learned so much from Sir Terry Pratchett’s works. His characterisation, his style of language, his incredible capacity to construct believable emotional drama alongside really good jokes are all things that have taught me more about writing as a craft than any class I’ve taken. And I didn’t just learn about writing. His stories – set in a fantasy world but so firmly grounded in real, human emotion – taught me empathy as a self-absorbed teenager, bravery as a former victim of bullying, and resilience as someone who has had to deal with loss when I was not ready to face it.

The Shepherd’s Crown was Sir Terry Pratchett’s final book, and I was not ready to face that, either. He died just after completing it, and it was released six months after his death. He was a giant of fantasy fiction, and if I ever reach the dizzying heights of authorhood, it will be because I am standing on his shoulders.

 

Next week, I’ll be going back to the classics and looking at the Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy Pevensie, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters: Granny Weatherwax

HOLD UP A SECOND GUYS. Just so you know, there’s now a page where you can easily access all of my ‘Strong Female Characters’ posts and compare their scores. It’s here; don’t say I never did anything nice for you. Now – blogging time!

For those of you that don’t know, Granny Weatherwax is one of the principal characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. A very powerful witch, (some of) the novels cover her various attempts to knock some sense into everyone she comes across, whether they’re kings, trolls or murderous elves trying to brainwash and enslave an entire country. Appearing in almost a dozen novels, she’s become one of Pratchett’s most popular characters – and her books pretty much defined my adolescence.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Granny Weatherwax is very firmly in control of her own destiny, and makes it her business to be in control of everyone else’s, too. Aside from being thoroughly involved in both the political life of her homeland, Lancre, and in the personal lives of her neighbours, she’s also one of the most powerful characters in the entire Discworld series (with the possible exception of Death), so she’s more than capable of making an impact.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Granny Weatherwax has a very firm sense of right and wrong, which largely stems from an awareness of the prejudices around witches, the temptation to use her considerable powers, and watching her sister’s questionable activities while she was growing up. Her goals vary between each book, but she can be broadly described as always wanting to protect the kingdom of Lancre and its inhabitants, both from outside threats and their own stupidity. As far as her hobbies go, they do tend to overlap with her goals a little – she’s very good at slipping into the minds of animals and looking through their eyes, a practice she calls Borrowing.

Which, I imagine, looks something like this. (image: buzzfeed.com)
Which, I imagine, looks something like this. (image: buzzfeed.com)

This is a skill she has an interest in maintaining, as she often uses it both as a form of surveillance and to defeat various supernatural entities, and the same can be said of many of her other pastimes. However, she has been shown to be an adept player of a card game called Cripple Mr. Onion, and her beliefs and goals are very much her own, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Throughout most of the books, Granny Weatherwax is consistently rude to almost everyone she meets, which is actually very refreshing. Her acerbic personality remains a feature of the books, but so does her willingness to help and protect people. Her skills are also consistent – not only is she always acknowledged to be one of the most powerful characters in the series, she also demonstrates a constantly crafty way of looking at things that frequently gives her the edge over her enemies.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A powerful witch who has devoted her life to protecting her country, her friends and anyone else who happens to have annoyed a supernatural entity.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Granny doesn’t have a love life.

Can't imagine why. (image: wikipedia.org)
Can’t imagine why. (image: wikipedia.org)

It’s implied she had a brief romance in her youth with Mustrum Ridcully, but this never amounted to anything. The two reconnected in Lords and Ladies, and she still keeps all his old love letters, but this is a very minor sub-plot which is only really used to illustrate her character further. Her decisions are usually influenced by her need to do what she sees as Right (with a capital R) and to protect anyone who needs protecting.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Granny’s character remains pretty constant over the course of her appearances in the Discworld novels, but there are subtle changes that take place as the books progress. Over the course of the books, she opens up a little – but only to a select few characters that she has deemed worthy. One of the most crucial developments is her taking on a more active role in teaching the younger witches – most notably Tiffany Aching, with whom she forms a very strong bond. I mean, Tiffany gives her a kitten – how could you not be friends after that?

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Granny actually has several negative character traits that operate on different levels. On the surface, she is short-tempered, acerbic, and seems to have little regard for other people’s feelings, and this can often make her relationships with friends a little prickly. She also has a tendency to be so introspective that she can read much more into a situation than there really is, and this, combined with her awareness of clichés – which she often uses as an indicator of what ‘ought’ to be, particularly in matters of witchcraft – often causes a lot of problems for her.

However, one of her most interesting weaknesses is her constant temptation to over-use her power. She knows full well that she is a very powerful witch – in one book, she uses her abilities to freeze a country in time for fifteen years – and all throughout the books, she has to struggle against the temptation to fix her problems with magic. This may seem unusual for a witch, but Granny is very aware that if she gives in too often, she won’t just be fixing her problems with magic, she’ll end up fixing other people. This is a fascinating weakness that sheds so much light on her character, and it’s also one that is very rarely found in female characters.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

In the novels that give her a main role, she drives the plot forward through her own investigations and actions. When she’s a member of the supporting cast, she’s still an active player, often acting as a source of advice (or exasperation) for the main character. Either way, she drives the plot forward without getting captured or killed in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Granny pretty much smashes a lot of stereotypes about gender. She’s an old woman – her age is never explicitly stated, but most readers reckon she’s probably in her seventies – but she is consistently shown to be one of the most powerful characters in the series and a regular defender of her country. This goes against all the tropes that make up the ‘little old lady’ – she’s about as far away from this particular stereotype as it’s possible to get. She is by no means weak or frail in any sense of the words; the woman has a glare that makes bears run for cover.

They learned quickly. (image: adventure-journal.com)
They learned quickly. (image: adventure-journal.com)

This, combined with her total lack of love life – aside from her brief fling with Ridcully, she’s never had a romantic partner – and the level of political influence she has, means that she pretty much smashes every age- and gender-related stereotype right out of the park.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Granny has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of characters. She has a hilarious friendship with Nanny Ogg, looks down on Magrat and Agnes in a vaguely friendly way, forms a spiky friendship with Tiffany Aching, outright despises the Queen of the Elves and has a very complex relationship with her sister, Lily, that’s a mix of rivalry, jealousy, hatred and the last traces of sisterly love. And that’s only her most important relationships – throughout the series she comes into contact with a range of female characters and reacts to each one differently. She passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Terry Pratchett! Granny is the only female character I’ve looked at so far that has completely aced my test, and it’s not difficult to see why. She’s a well-rounded character with a host of strengths and weaknesses, is totally independent of gender (and age) stereotypes, has a range of relationships with a range of female characters, and is very firmly in control of her progression through the story. She displays a level of depth and intricacy that’s not often seen in female characters and it’s just WONDERFUL.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Divergence trilogy. Tris, I’m coming for you.